Special Reports

The next generation

By Meghan Boyer

October 2010- The future of U.S. manufacturing is dependent in large part on the strength of its workforce. Yet, emphasis in the United States on college or university degrees over vocational or technical programs has left many students unaware of manufacturing as a viable and rewarding career. However, the future is optimistic.

Overall interest in manufacturing programs is high among not only young people but also older adults. The current crop of students entering into metalworking education is discovering many companies once again are hiring as strength returns to the sectors they serve. Despite the positive trends, opportunity still exists for the industry to increase its outreach efforts to potential employees, which can help ensure a steady flow of skilled workers in the long term.

"Companies are having a more positive outlook on the future. They've started hiring, and as a result, we are seeing our graduates move into employment," says John Gajewski, executive director of the advanced manufacturing, engineering and apprenticeship program at Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland.

Interest in metalworking education also has increased in part because of the economic decline, says Alan Curler, director of career services at the Tulsa Welding School, Tulsa, Okla. "People have chosen to reeducate and try to find themselves a better opportunity for the future. Our school is at maximum capacity," he says. The school recently opened an annex to accommodate additional students, bringing enrollment to more than 800.

The incoming classes largely consist of two groups: young, entry-level workers hoping to join the workforce and older adults hoping to advance their technical skills. "We usually have a surge of high school kids who graduated the year before ... but we also have a lot of adult people who are reeducating," says Curler.

Motivated students
For many young people, the impetus to enter metalworking centers on end products and industries, such as automobiles and aerospace. "Students enrolling in engineering programs are turned on by the big technological and societal challenges," says Harold Brody, a distinguished professor of materials science and engineering at the institute of materials science at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, Conn. "The word manufacturing doesn't really attract them. In this region, aerospace attracts them. Electron beam welding is manufacturing, but the fact that it's a jazzy, high-tech kind of metalworking or welding, that attracts them," he says.

An interest in cars led Caleb Jones to WyoTech's Laramie, Wyo., campus where he is taking classes in custom cars and the street rod industry. After graduation, he hopes to return to his hometown and use the metal-shaping skills he learned to start a rod shop. WyoTech is part of Corinthian Colleges Inc., Santa Ana, Calif.

"You can have a car that somebody says, 'You should just crush that. It's not even worth working on.' But when you are done with it, people ... Can't believe it's the same car because of what you did to it. It's really, really rewarding work," says Jones.

Likewise, Zack Knighten joined the creative studio class at DeLaSalle Education Center because he wanted to learn about cars. The school is an alternative-education provider in Kansas City, Mo. During his three years with the class, Knighten learned how to weld, read blueprints and fabricate metal. The class ultimately designed and fabricated a working electric automobile based on a 2000 Lola Indy Car platform.

While fabricating the car, Knighten and fellow students worked a lot with sheet aluminum, says Steve Rees, a class instructor. Students used an electric sheer to cut the metal and leather hammers and bucks to form aluminum edges. "They really got to use a lot of different types of tools," he says.

Working with many of the tools was a new experience for Knighten. "I learned how to shape, to work with hands-on things I had never used before like drills," he says. Knighten plans to pursue a college degree in architecture, and he credits the class for helping improve his drawing and design skills.

Creating hands-on projects in the University of Connecticut's metallurgy lab is what Joseph Rajan and Brian Zimmer enjoy most about metalworking. "Metallurgy is an industry that has a lot of very hands-on research, more so than a lot of the other majors I was considering quite some time ago," says Zimmer. Both students are specializing in aluminum alloy casting at the school.

Rajan's father was a craftsman in India before he came to the United States, and he became a certified plumber and a certified electrician in New York, he says. Rajan gained experience working with his father on family vehicles, and his interest in cars continues today. "I would love to work for an automotive manufacturer working on the engine blocks. I would love to cast engine blocks," he says. After graduation, Rajan plans to obtain a Ph.D. either in metallurgy or ceramics.

Zimmer is not yet certain about future plans. "I am personally willing to go into a lot of different aspects in the field," he says. "It will probably come down to what jobs I am offered."

In many cases, workers who were displaced in the manufacturing sector or who saw the industry moving from manual machining to higher levels of automation have decided to reeducate themselves, says Gajewski. "They took the last two years as an opportunity to retool and retrain themselves to be prepared for the economic recovery," he says.

Dale Beran, a precision machine training student at Cuyahoga Community College, realized the need for additional education after being laid off from a job in the printing industry. After searching for employment, he noticed many of the available jobs were in metalworking, yet he needed additional skills such as the ability to run a lathe or a mill to get into open positions and stay in them.

"If you make yourself good, if you make yourself irreplaceable, you just can't bring in a temp to do my job, because a temp can not read the codes that I am putting in," he says. "They are not going to recognize when something goes wrong, and they are not going to be able to fix it. I want to be the guy who says, 'This isn't right. Let's fix this.'" Beran plans to get his degree one day and become a programmer in the industry.

After working more than 30 years as a precision flat form grinder, Dave Hinojosa also was laid off. He mostly had worked on manual machines and is attending Cuyahoga Community College to learn advanced CNC. Hinojosa recently began working at a company that is going to add CNC machines, and he believes his training will be an asset.

Being a machinist always has seemed like a natural fit for Hinojosa. "I can't sing. I can't dance. I'm not an artist. I couldn't draw a straight line without a ruler, but I can make things on a machine," he says. "It's the satisfaction of knowing you did your job right, and that they can count on you."

Pursuing reeducation will help Hinojosa be prepared for the future. "Let's say this company takes a downturn, you want to know that you've taken the skills from the last place you worked, this place that you are working, and you can apply them to the next place that you work," he says. In the future, "I don't know where I am going to be, I just want to be ready when I get there."

Keeping people interested in metalworking as a career is of utmost importance to the industry, which is losing many skilled workers to retirement. Previously, companies were not hiring, "and so now with retirements, there's a huge gap that they are really scrambling to fill," says Jon Kellar, Douglas Fuerstenau professor and department head of materials and metallurgical engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, Rapid City, S.D. The school teaches students about metals "from ore to the finished product, and obviously metalworking is a part of that," he says.

Indeed, as workers retire, "there isn't anybody hardly coming along behind them to take over those jobs. You see that in welding and other fabrication areas," says Jeff McCormick, a mentor at DeLaSalle. "Somebody has got to find a way to get these kids drawn back into the skill of actually creating things by hand. We're losing that as a society," he says, noting programs like the creative studio class at DeLaSalle help show young adults the career possibilities that exist in manufacturing.

Seventy-eight percent of Americans see manufacturing as important to the country's economic prosperity, and 75 percent believe the United States needs a more strategic approach to developing its manufacturing base, according to the Public Viewpoint on Manufacturing survey released in September by Deloitte LLP, New York, and the Manufacturing Institute, Washington, D.C. Additionally, 63 percent of respondents "strongly agree" or "agree" that manufacturing is high-tech, and the same amount "strongly agree" or "agree" it requires well-educated, highly skilled workers.

However, concern about the future health of U.S. manufacturing exists: 55 percent of respondents think the long-term outlook for American manufacturing is weaker than today, and only 30 percent would encourage their children to pursue careers in manufacturing, according to the survey. Respondents noted government-related factors, such as business policies, tax rates on individuals, and state and federal leadership, as obstacles to success in manufacturing.

"In this country, it seems like it's pounded [into people]: go to college, go to college, go to college," says Beran. "All they are told is, 'You need to further your education.' but they have no idea what they are going [to college] for."

Many metalworking programs already reach out to high school students. WyoTech's admissions representatives visit high schools nationwide to talk about the services and programs available, says Martin Axlund, director of career services at WyoTech's Laramie campus. The South Dakota School of Mines & Technology has a mobile blacksmithing lab that it drives to area high schools, says Kellar.

Students are able to do metalworking in the mobile lab and also look at the microstructure and hardness of metals, he says, noting both students and teachers love it.

Despite schools' efforts, changing perceptions about the metalworking industry ultimately is not up to one group; it needs to be a partnership between the industry and educational centers, says Michael Whitt, engineering chair at Miami Dade College, Miami. "A lot of students don't see how a career in metals can benefit them," he says. "However, they see the products and they see the things they enjoy, but they don't understand the importance of how the fabrication of the metal is a part of that process."

It's important for potential recruits to understand metalworking offers rewarding career paths, says Gajewski. A student may make $12 to $13 per hour as a production operator. With an associate's degree, that person could move into supervision or production control and earn $40,000 annually. A bachelor's degree eventually could help the worker move into engineering or management, with increased earning potential. "Everybody is not going to take that path, but it's a path that's open and available to the people who want to pursue it," he says.

For some students, manufacturing is the perfect career fit. "This company was very proud of the fact that they could make a tool, send it to a company and the company didn't even bother to inspect it," says Hinojosa. "And that's what I wanted to be. I wanted to be that person they could come to, have me do something and they could just use it without inspecting it because they knew that I would do it right." FFJ


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